The planet is on the cusp of a seismic demographic shift. Peak population growth was in 1968. It has slowed inexorably since. Probably well before the end of this century, the number of humans will be on a path of absolute decline.
The brakes have not been exactly slammed on, but the pace of growth has sharply diminished. This was the message from the Office for National Statistics last week when it released its annual estimate of the population of the United Kingdom. The official total was 66,796,807, an increase of just 0.5% from a year earlier.
I say “just” because it represents the smallest increase recorded since 2004. According to Professor Jonathan Portes, an expert in this field, the near cessation of the UK’s population growth mostly reflects the fall in migration from the EU, in the wake of the vote for Brexit: “The psychological impact of Brexit on past and prospective migrants from the EU has been very large.”
It was to a much lesser extent the result of decreasing family sizes in the existing population. But the figures were nonetheless welcomed by the Malthusian campaigning group Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust). Its director Robin Maynard said that this was because “more people, consuming more stuff, lessens our quality of life”. That is its eternal message, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But why should a lower level of transfer in population between nations have the slightest relevance to its cause? People migrating to the UK, especially from outside the EU, tend to have smaller family sizes here than in their land of origin, so those obsessed with this issue should, if anything, welcome more flow in our direction.
The truth, however, is that in the second half of the 20th century, the population control advocates were overwhelmingly concerned to stop the demographic growth at source in what was then called the Third World. This was based — by their own account — on the same fear as Thomas Malthus expressed about this country at the end of the 18th century: that food production could never grow sufficiently to feed a seemingly ever-enlarging population.
This disproved theory remains the view of the nation’s favourite broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough. He declared it was “barmy” to have sent food aid to Ethiopia, as its famines — in his opinion — were purely a function of having “too many people for too little [a] piece of land”. It clearly eluded Sir David (whose expertise lies outside the field of economics) that those famines were provoked by the genuinely barmy communist agricultural policies of that country’s regime at the time, just as similar measures led to mass famines in Ukraine in the 1930s and in China in the 1950s.
Sir David was at it again this month: he delivered a video message for the WWF wildlife organisation in which he declared we should “stabilise the human population as low as we fairly can”, to save the planet. The images accompanying these words showed a spectacularly dense gathering of people at a religious festival, perhaps in India. Message: just look at them, breeding like rabbits. But soon this footage was withdrawn, with the WWF saying: “Earlier today, we shared a video that could appear to support a narrative that people of colour are responsible for the pressures of a growing world population. This is not our intent at all. We have deleted the video and apologise.” Contacted by The Times, Attenborough said he could “not remember” whether he had seen the original version of the film when he recorded his message.